Why are so many baseball fans sympathizing with MLB owners? It’s something I was asked recently during a weekly appearance on 104.9 The Horn in Austin, and it nearly stumped me, a rare feat for a guy who doesn’t fear a huge word count and can fill a solo podcast with enough bullshit to make the worst radio host blush. Why sympathize with the billionaires? Whether it’s the ongoing conversation at Orangebloods.com, the comments sections of various MLB columns and reports or Twitter, a surprising – at least I think so – amount of MLB fans are seeking fault in the players and MLBPA’s role in current negotiations to bring back baseball. More people are eager to blame players for a possibly cancelled baseball season – something more unlikely following recent developments – than owners. Even after reports surfaced of players stepping to the plate to pay minor league players in their respective systems while owners sat and watched from their ‘insert expensive car manufacturer sponsor here’ box seats, I read excuses made for owners. “No one is paying attention. David Price signed a $217-million contract. The public doesn’t care. It’s not a big deal” Huh? Keep in mind the current system, which has allowed owners to feast on a main course of service time rules with a side dish of arbitration and MLB Draft and international bonus rules for dessert, treats minor league players unlike… well, unlike anything else I’ve found in the free working world. The Oakland A’s, for shining example, suspended their $400 weekly payments to minor leaguers. Under current rules, those players can’t become free agents. They also can’t seek unemployment. We’ll call the minor league system the appetizer.
To the left: a man worth billions who won't pay minor league players
Don’t worry. Billionaire A’s owner John Fisher delivered a benevolent message to his organization and fan base. And by ‘benevolent’ I mean it was so dripping wet with tone-deaf ignorance it read like the repeated plumbing and sewage issues at Oakland Coliseum smelled. At the end of Fisher’s message, he stated how committed he is to bring a new stadium to Oakland and the fan base. Keep in mind the stadium will at least be partially funded by taxpayer money, which continues to be the greatest trick owners pull. Threaten to leave if a new stadium isn’t built; use taxpayer money to build stadium; profit. “Hey, I’m suspending those $400 weekly checks to minor leagues, cutting money to other employees… but I’m totally committed to getting y’all that new stadium you’re going to pay for. Go A’s!” It wasn’t until then it really hit me. Owners, generally speaking, are refusing to dig into their deep pockets, and these are the guys many are sympathizing with. Fisher is worth just over $2 billion, and the A’s a shade over $1 billion, according to Forbes. The A’s were purchased in 2005 for $180 million. Seems like a good investment. Meanwhile, there is actually a percentage of people rolling their eyes at players taking the issue of paying minor leaguers into their own hands. And the owners know they’re wrong. Once it was reported the Nationals would make similar cuts, Sean Doolittle tweeted later he and current Nationals players would take care of the minor league players. Patrick Corbin retweeted a tweet about the net worth of Nats ownership. Less than 24 hours later, Washington ownership changed its mind. Oh, so they can afford to dig into that $5 billion net worth? While I’m not a financial expert with a business degree, I do know this: there are many owners or ownership groups hurting. I’ve referenced net worth. I know it’s not the same as what’s in the bank account currently; assets aren’t cash; etc. No one could truly prepare for a global pandemic suddenly shutting down Spring Training and eliminating the consistent cash flow MLB teams receive from games. It’s unfair to criticize owners without acknowledging these are indeed unprecedented times for them too. Not all, and there are probably many in this group, can immediately write gigantic checks while a significant source of their revenue has surprisingly been forced to hit the pause button without a true end in sight. However, to understand some of the venom accompanying the current negotiation process to bring back baseball you must rewind the clock back a little bit to another set of unprecedented times.
Revenues have exploded in Major League Baseball and have consistently made owners richer each season. In 1995, total revenues for MLB were about $1.4 billion; in 2019, MLB set a record with $10.7 billion in revenue. Yes, there are many reasons why when you look at the price owners purchased teams for and compare it to valuations now, you’ll notice a big difference in favor of the rich guys. Hell, some owners even have equity in regional television networks. Ever heard of BAMTech? It delivered MLB owners a couple paydays totally just under, reportedly (although reports weren’t consistent), $90 million. Players received as much as you and I.
So, in early May when it was reported the MLB and owners agreed on a proposal for a 50-50 revenue split with players in a shortened season, the owners effectively pissed in players’ Cheerios.
As many readers know, baseball is unique from other sports because it doesn't have a salary cap, and the relationship between owners’ revenues and players’ salaries is distinctly different than other American professional sports. In other sports, salary caps are directly influenced by revenue; in Major League Baseball, that’s not the case.
So, players and the MLBPA are always going to reject a proposal, like the owners and MLB agreed to in early May, that includes something like the 50-50 revenue split owners suggested. These revenues have increased consistently over the years and made many of these owners extremely rich with valuations of franchises significantly higher than when purchased, some stake in regional TV networks, etc.
Now, they want to discuss a 50-50 split and directly link salaries to revenues? Plus, such proposal has the makings of a salary cap. In some ways, I admire the audacity of owners to attempt to slip that by players with CBA negotiations upcoming before the 2021 season. Many of these guys don’t become billionaires without being ruthless and bombastic. Unlike usual CBA-like negotiations, the players are paying full attention to everything about this process. It’s not being crammed into an offseason with another season on the horizon. More than ever, players are tuned in.
Fast forward to the last week or so and the negotiation process has accelerated to the end of a steel cage match because both sides know they must strike a deal and the time to make that deal is disappearing quicker than Derek Jeter’s range. Unsurprisingly, players/MLBPA and owners/MLB can’t even agree on the prorated salaries agreement back in March; one side claims it was contingent upon fans in the stands while the other disagrees. Hell, even independent legal experts disagree, according to a column from ESPN’s Jeff Passan.
“When asked by ESPN to interpret the language, four longtime labor lawyers who work for neither MLB nor the union adopted different positions. Two said the similarity in the language made it clear that those sections were meant to be tied together. One agreed with the union's interpretation that anything about compensation changing should have been written explicitly. The fourth called any potential grievance on the matter a toss-up.”
Owners pushed back on the prorated agreement, if we can even call it that, and offered an initial, ridiculous proposal of gigantic cuts to players’ salaries, citing the substantial loss of revenue. And yes, they’re losing revenue, and while everyone needs games to get paid, games without fans don’t fully deliver the sudden, significant revenue stream owners are missing. Again, if you’re arriving to this conversation without acknowledging owners’ loss of massive cash flow from games with fans, you’re doing it wrong.
The problem with the stance with owners: They're crying poor and that they'll become poorer with games but aren't presenting any of the information, information the players have asked for. If they're going to lose so much money, wouldn't they at least come up with some information to deliver to help their argument? They're not being asked to turn over their books, although that would be fascinating; just some sort of evidence.
And yes, I understand they aren't obligated to given their private status, but the latest example of owners painting their own picture was the leaked story to the AP weeks ago about their losses, which people immediately poked holes in.
Basically, players are always going to be at the very least skeptical of revenues discussions, especially with another CBA negotiation upcoming before 2021. And they should be because they, like almost everyone else, don’t have access or knowledge of what owners’ revenue situation actually is. Players weren't offered revenues splits when owners were enjoying the financial boom of MLB, and certainly weren't offered all the money received from BAMTech. But now when things are tough for these billionaires, they want to share revenues and try to float a salary-cap agreement by the MLBPA? As superagent Scott Boras said, owners want to privatize the gains and socialize the losses. Good luck. Plus, what would revenue sharing even mean? They certainly wouldn't share non-game day revenues. Cody Bellinger wouldn’t suddenly get a piece of the Dodgers’ massive, regional television deal. Dream on. Starting this whole process with a revenue-splitting tone didn't help, and it's not going to help players just blindly accept owners' revenue/money claims during this process currently. Now, the MLB/owners countered the players/MLBPA’s counterproposal of a 114-game season with prorated salaries, among other things, with a significantly shorter season, reportedly 50-60 games, with prorated salaries. It’s important to remember this is a negotiation process. Captain Obvious says you’re welcome. Ultimately, what will probably happen is something in between with players accepting a small cut and owners agreeing to something like an 82-game season with expanded playoffs, something they’d greatly benefit from given its direct influence on television revenue. There will be baseball because both parties want there to be baseball and understand no season would send the sport’s public image spiraling down towards the 1994-95 strike. But back, finally, to the original question: why do so many people back the owners in this process?
Per reports, David Price stepped up to make sure Dodgers minor leaguers would be paid.
Here's what I think: --- The average MLB fan turns on the television, when there are actual games to watch, and sees a bunch of guys playing a game in fancy cathedrals with thousands of fans in attendance. Perhaps more than any other professional sport, fans romanticize baseball. They watch The Sandlot, Field of Dreams, and smile about America’s pastime. Maybe they grew up playing the sport, and this is consistent across all major sports: fans view being a professional athlete as more of a hobby/game than a job. So, for some the immediate reaction is for professional baseball players to accept significant paycuts. Why not? They’re getting paid to play a game for a living. Average Joe fan would kill to have that job. It’s difficult for the 9-5 employee to sympathize with the millionaire athlete because the spectator would almost always trade places with the athlete and would always trade salaries or play for much less. Fans romanticize playing a game for a living while making millions; they don’t dream of being an owner of a franchise despite the zeroes added to the bank account and net worth. --- Pay attention enough and baseball fans will have a grasp of how much players make, at least to a general degree. And the more intelligent and passionate baseball fans know how much a player makes and his contract status; so often now players’ performance is evaluated with their salary. That’s not a bad thing. Being able to load a Fangraphs.com page and see an assigned $ value for a player, and its relationship to WAR, is fantastic. But it also means when a player making a lot of money is struggling, his salary often gains even more attention. What’s the first thing I think of when I hear Rusney Castillo’s name? How much the Red Sox spent on him to completely flop. What’s the first thing that came up nationally when Chris Sale needed Tommy John surgery? The long-term deal he signed with the Red Sox. When Winter Meetings are covered, it's all about the big-name free agents and how much money they sign for. There isn’t a Winter Meetings for the Forbes list of most valuable MLB franchises and how much owners have gained in revenue and increased franchise value. Also, there isn’t a Winter Meetings for arbitration hearings or detailed coverage of players performing extremely better than market value while stuck in service time requirements to the owners’ extreme benefit. Rafael Devers, according to Fangraphs.com, was worth $47.5 million dollars last season. He made $614,500, and won’t be a free agent until 2024. But to the average fan, what Devers made last seaosn is life-changing. --- How often is the net worth of owners publicized? How often are fans presented with material about how much revenue a team made for a given year or how much an owner made off the purchase of the franchise? Hell, how often is an owner even shown during a game or during non-game MLB coverage? Not often. How many fans even know how revenue works in MLB and how the sport is different from those with salary caps? --- Often when fans show up in person to watch a game and pay ridiculous prices for hot dogs, beer, and if you’re in Seattle, grasshoppers, they sit in their seats and watch the players. They don’t watch the owners. So, some, perhaps a majority, associate the money spent on paying the salary of the players they’re watching, and if/when those players don’t perform well, a negative association with the players could follow. --- Owners are much better and are better equipped to shape public perception than players. Take the AP story referenced above about owners’ losses if games are played this season without fans. Immediately, smart baseball people poked holes in the owners’ case, but many accepted the report blindly as fact despite the lack of evidence. Again, many owners are hurting with the surprising loss of gameday income, but they’re also billionaires crying poor in the public media space in hopes of turning the tide against players and gaining more leverage to save more money… after the sport has rewarded them with record-setting revenues the players receive none of. --- Basically, owners and their financial standing are out of sight, out of mind for some fans; meanwhile, players and their salaries are not, and if they are, it doesn’t take long for media coverage to remind fans. In order for this to work, and I’m more convinced than I was last week it will, players must acknowledge the financial issues owners are dealing with, and must accept some type of cut. The players aren’t free of fault during this ugly negotiation process; this isn’t a one-way street with an angel positioned at one end and Satan the other. But the next time you want to fault the millionaire player, consider the status of the billionaire owner and understand why something like a proposal of revenue-sharing and discussions about loss of revenue are met with skepticism and irritation.
Photos courtesy of AP images